Kim Weir

Host, Up the Road

Kim Weir, a former NSPR news reporter, is editor and founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. She is also an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers. North State Public Radio’s Up the Road program is jointly produced by Up the Road.

Bob Wick, US Bureau of Land Management


We head up the road this week to discover the California desert. Spring is an ideal time to go, especially in a year of drenching rainfall—which in these parts measures in the single digits—because well-timed rain brings the shocking exuberance of wildflowers.

Up The Road: Mary Austin

Mar 21, 2018
Library of Congress

Whenever I head up the road I try to bring along music and also books—fiction, poetry, sometimes non-fiction—that speak to the spirit of the place I’ll be visiting, especially if I’ll be staying awhile. The writer whose company I often keep in the California desert is Mary Hunter Austin, author of The Land of Little Rain, a collection of essays that take you there. Here is Mary Austin—in this ode to the once-beautiful Owens Valley, before Los Angeles absconded with its water—describing her beloved “Country of Lost Borders” and the power of its night sky:

“For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations,” she wrote, “deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars. . . . It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.”

Benjamin Claverie

 


We head Up the Road this week to Mariposa at the southern end of California’s famous Mother Lode, where John C. and Jesse Fremont once called home some 70 square miles of Sierra Nevada foothills

outside Yosemite—the former Las Mariposas Spanish land grant of Juan Bautista Alvarado. Las Mariposas happened to include a thick five-mile vein of gold-laced quartz that produced hundreds of pounds of placer gold every month. The Fremonts were loaded.

Yet controversy and drama dogged John C. Fremont throughout his life—his incursions on behalf of Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans had a divine right to possess the entire continent; his attacks on Indians; his instigation of the Bear Flag Revolt and Mexican-American War; his strange court martial. (And that was before most of his military career.) More drama at Las Mariposas, soon overrun by squatters, mostly miners with contested mining claims. The US Supreme Court eventually backed Fremont.

The smartest thing John C. Fremont ever did was marry Jesse Benton. She was politically savvy where he was impetuous—and came by it naturally, as the daughter of expansionist Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Her very engaging writings launched Fremont as a popular public figure. She greatly expanded and improved his otherwise thin expedition reports, which were then published in the tabloids of the day, encouraging western settlement. And her work supported him at the end, when the wealth was gone.

Thomas Kriese

We continue visiting gold-rush-era California this week, primarily because that historic earthquake shaped or reshaped almost every aspect of California as we know it today.

There were very few women among the new arrivals so busy shaking up the Golden State, but, many of them were literate and articulate, and engaged observers. Including Eliza Farnham, a popular lecturer, writer, abolitionist, prison reformer, phrenologist, and spiritualist who fully engaged the public imagination. She frequently lectured on the natural superiority of women, though, because she believed women superior, she did not push for equal rights.

Not all of Farnham’s ventures succeeded. Her tenure as prison matron at New York’s Sing Sing was controversial, given her belief that she could determine a woman’s character by studying skull shape and size. (A quick aside: The pseudoscience of phrenology led to some notably racist conclusions. On the plus side, it helped establish present-day neuropsychology, at least the understanding that the brain is an organ that influences emotion, thought, and behavior.)

Wayne Hsieh

This week we add another woman’s perspective to the story of life in California’s gold camps. An everyday perspective. Of the very few women who made up gold-rush communities, most were not notorious—definitely not internationally notorious, like “Spanish dancer” Lola Montez—but just plain folks, doing their best to get food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. 

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

This week we return to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, California’s gold country, to meet more of the bold, sometimes brazen women who made their marks early on. Appropriately enough, the U.S. senator who introduced legislation that led to the Nineteenth Amendment (and women's right to vote) lived in Nevada City. World-class soprano Emma Nevada was another well-known native. Locally famous was gambler Eleanor "Madame Moustache" Dumont. Scandalous internationally was Lola Montez of adjacent Grass Valley. 

Jeannie Stafford USFWS

We head up the road this week to Sage-Grouse country. California just happens to take in the far western edge of the Great Basin, high plateaus known for sagebrush and wide open spaces. California is the far edge of home for the Greater Sage-Grouse, which lives only in the West, nibbling at and nesting in sagebrush.

Christopher Browns

We head up the road this week to the Salton Sea in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. Most people don’t make it much beyond the population centers—Palm Springs with its swimming pools, mid-century modern architecture, and groovy antique shops; luxury golf courses valley-wide, gushing with greens and water fountains; upmarket shopping in Palm Desert; and classic resorts such as Spanish-style La Quinta, near Indio, where Frank Capra of It’s A Wonderful Life fame, retreated to write that equally rad 1935 rom com It Happened One Night.

Jessica Kantor

We head Up the Road this week to the Nord Country School in tiny Nord, California. This spot in the road just northwest of Chico, central to cattle, fruit tree, and nut ranches, puts on some of the best community events anywhere. When was the last time you went to a pie auction? The next one is coming right up, Saturday night at the Chico Elks Club, and you won’t want to miss it. Tickets are still available through the school, or online through EventBrite.

Nick Ares

We continue exploring the gold country this week, because—as we’re now learning—even though women were few among the miners, they had plenty to say about the 1849 gold rush and the onrushing chaos it created.

Take Coloma, for example. As every California fourth-grader knows, James Marshall started the gold rush when he discovered gold there. He had traveled from John Sutter’s ranch in New Helvetia, today’s Sacramento, up the American River to build a sawmill, to produce much-needed lumber.

 

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